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On Screwing Up by Gary Crabbe

By January 11, 2014No Comments

Story and Photograph by Gary Crabbe

Morning light on sandstone cliffs reflected in the Colorado River at Horseshoe Bend, near Pag, Arizona

Morning light on sandstone cliffs reflected in the Colorado River at Horseshoe Bend, near Page, Arizona. © Gary Crabbe/Enlightened Images

Even professionals screw up every now and again. We may not brag about it in public, but rest assured, we make mistakes just like everyone else.

The photo above may not look like a total screw-up, but it is. It’s a multi-row, nearly 40-frame panoramic image shot with my Nikon D800.

When you’ve made a mistake once, making it again is a lot like sticking your hand on a hot stove after you’ve already been burned. But it’s the repetition of mistakes that so brutally reinforces the need to learn…the screaming in your head as you tell yourself not to make the same mistake again in the future.

Here, my mistake happened the night before I made this image. I’d been taking night shots and experimenting with light painting. It wasn’t until the end of the next morning’s shoot that I discovered I forgot to reset my ISO from the night before. I’d shot nearly everything that morning, including my big multi-row pano, at 3200 ISO.

The lesson: Always set your ISO back to normal before you put the camera back in the bag. The next morning is too darn late.

Horseshoe Bend, the subject of this image, is one of the Southwest’s great “Me Too” icon locations. It is a place where photographers go to get their own trophy shot. In terms of individuality or uniqueness, Horseshoe Bend is one of those “low-hanging fruit” locations near the bottom rung of the ladder. Often the difference between a decent shot and a great shot boils down to special lighting conditions. I knew the weather called for a clear and cloudless sunrise, which is a zero on the atmospheric specialness scale.

While I was shooting, I noticed a guy setting up an 8×10 field camera. Once the sun had risen and we were packing to leave, I stopped to chat with him for a moment. It turned out he never even put a piece of film in his camera the entire morning. “It just wasn’t what I wanted or was looking for,” he said. By that time, I’d already realized my own mistake. Still, hearing that he hadn’t even loaded film into his camera suddenly made me realize that I was feeling absolutely no sense of loss. Why? There was absolutely nothing creative about the shot. No unique personal vision was involved. For me, this was just another “Me Too” shot of a place I’d already been to, even if it was a decade ago.

I was far more upset with myself for not having remembered to change my ISO than I was coming home with a ruined shot. I guarantee I would have felt far more devastated if I had made the same mistake at a less-photographed, more personal location or even at the same location if there had been some really special lighting conditions.

Gary Crabbe is an award-winning photographer and author based in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is widely published in books and magazines, and his fine art prints and murals are included in both private and corporate collections. Gary also works as a consultant, photo editor, workshop leader and writer. His latest book is Photographing California – Vol. 1: North. To see more of Gary’s work, go to

How Have You Screwed Up?
We’ve all done it, from not resetting the ISO from a previous shoot (like me) to deleting our best shots. How have you screwed up? Let us know in the comments on this blog.


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